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Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 Paperback – May 19, 1995

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Chauncey reconstructs New York's pre-WWII gay community, revealing a group that was deeply involved in the city's social and cultural scenes.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

Historian Chauncey (Univ. of Chicago) brilliantly maps out the complex gay world of turn-of-the-century New York City. This book's publication is timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, which is often hailed as the birth of the modern gay and lesbian movement. Yet Chauncey convincingly puts Stonewall in perspective: It hardly marked the beginning of urban gay pride or nightlife. Rather than languishing in obscurity and isolation, as has long been assumed, many gay male New Yorkers thrived in close, often proud communities decades before the famous riots. He argues that before WW II the boundaries between homosexual and heterosexual behavior were far looser than they were later, particularly among working-class men. Gay New York reconstructs prewar gay life through police records, newspapers, oral histories, the papers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, diaries, medical records, and other fascinating primary texts. The material is rich and much of it startlingly revealing about prewar social mores: A State Liquor Authority investigator in 1939 amiably refers to a drag queen by the feminine pronoun, boasting that ``she liked us very much,'' while a musician's diaries tell of his often successful attempts at picking up uniformed policemen. This was clearly a world of permeable sexual boundaries. Chauncey (co-editor, Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, not reviewed) is a savvy tour guide, leading us through bars, speakeasies, parks, bathhouses, streets, rooming houses, and cafeterias, always providing ample historical context and intriguing interpretive possibilities. He explores not only the mainstream culture's influence on gay urban life, but vice versa, arguing that homosexuality and heterosexuality are historically specific categories that evolved in the beginning of this century and shaped each other. Chauncey has made a stunning contribution not only to gay history, but to the study of urban life, class, gender--and heterosexuality. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (May 19, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465026214
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465026210
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,246 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Steven S. Berizzi on November 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read a lot of history, but generally not read social history. Nevertheless, this is one of the best books I have read in recent years. According to Author George Chauncey, who teaches at the University of Chicago, a "myth of isolation" "holds that, even if a gay world existed [in New York between 1890 and 1940], it was kept invisible." Chauncey's main premise is that, not only was there a gay New York beginning in the 1890s, it was not invisible.
In the marvelous introduction, Chauncey also makes the profound point that the gay male world of the pre-World War II era "was not a world in which men were divided into `homosexuals' and 'heterosexuals.'" Chauncey proceeds to explain: "This book argues that in important respects the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation." Later in the introduction, Chauncey writes: "Heterosexuality, no less than homosexuality, is a historically specific social category and identity." Chauncey's study begins in the 1890s, "a time when New York was famous for being a `wide-open town,' [when] some clubs went so far as to stage live sexual performances." The so-called "Bowery resorts were only the most famous elements of an extensive, organized, highly visible gay world." At the turn of the century, men who were "`painted and powdered,' used women's names, and displayed feminine mannerisms" were called "fairies." According to Chauncey, fairies were tolerated, but not respected, in much of working-class society. During this period "Many men alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that interest in one precluded interest in the other.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By disco75 on June 15, 2002
Format: Paperback
Chauncey's book offers serious and original thinking about queer history and about general urban history as well. Freed from the myths that have persisted about the place of homosexuals in U.S. society, the author paints a new portrait of what transpired just before the turn of the last century and into the early decades of the 20th century.
The most important idea he explains is that the concepts of "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" as we understand them today didn't exist one hundred years ago. Chauncey's research shows that it was adherence to traditional gender role, rather than choice of sex partner, that labelled a man as either a "fairy" or "normal." The author provides detailed descriptions of the process by which working class men in particular could have sexual relations with other men and perserve a "normal" identity so long as the sex partners were effeminate. He uses extensive supporting materials that undergird his conclusions, including accounts of the "pansies" who were not, in fact, demeaned or ostracized but instead were tolerated, courted, and may even have served a vital purpose to working men who had relocated alone to the city to support families that lived elsewhere or to make their way into adulthood.
Chauncey shows how the definition of "invert"-- detour from standard gender role-- shifted gradually to the notion of "degenerate" or "homosexual"-- men who chose other men as sex partners. He makes clear how the emerging definition of homosexuality depended on a similarly new definition of heterosexuality. These subtle but powerful social mores are detailed at length, in convincing prose.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Charlus on December 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book was preceded in my conciousness by high critical praise and so I approached it with great expectations. And in great part it met these expectations.
More than anything else, this is a work of love, being the excavation of forgotten facts in the history of gay life as it was lived by decades of gay men, experiences now mostly forgotten or scattered in obscure and fading documents. It is an extraordinary work of social archeology, resurrecting a world I never knew exisited. And Chauncey does this in exceptional detail, using clear prose, so that by the end the geography of this world has been salvaged and reconstructed, like Combray from Marcel's teacup.
As the book proceeds, the writing becomes stronger, particularly as the facts become more readily available, and the arguments and conclusions become more convincing. The last chapter is especially good on the submergence of gay life after Prohibition. This book is clearly one of the masterpieces of gay history, on par with John Boswell's work especially in it's dependence on primary sources.
The only criticism I have lies in the fact that Chauncey often has trouble shaping his information and often can't create a forest out of the trees. Especially in the earlier chapters, he often fails to make a summary statement without such a host of qualifiers that you wonder why he bothers in the first place. And as a previous reviewer has noted, there are alot of repetitions that a good editor should have corrected.
Despite all these reservations, for those interested in discovering a lost world, this book will be a revelation.
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